Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 64 of a new online serial novel, The Cuckoo Clock, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
Magdiel, Israel 1949
The curtain with the embroidered flowers fluttered in the light morning breeze. Gershon Ludmir was smearing a bit of Batya’s apple jam on a slice of black bread when there was a knock at the door. Batya entered, pulling almost-three-year-old Elisha behind her. “He was crying again,” she said. “The teacher said I should take him home.” She sat the child onto her lap with a scowl on her face and sighed. “What can I do? Berta Greenberg will not be very pleased if I bring him to the sewing shop for the fifth day in a row!”
“I wanna go with Abba to the tractor,” the boy declared enthusiastically.
His father chuckled, and offered his son some jam on a spoon. “No, sweetie. We can’t do that. Tractors are dangerous for little boys.”
“Too bad summer vacation is over. When Miriam was home, there was no problem.” Batya stood up, went over to the pot of soup she’d left, and opened the lid. “If he doesn’t get used to nursery quickly, I won’t be able to go to work.”
“Maybe that will be a good solution,” Gershon said. “I’m not sure your salary is worth the whole thing. When you were sewing at home, alone, you earned more, didn’t you?”
“But how many people come to Magdiel for a private seamstress?” she murmured. “Berta Greenberg works with stores, so it’s better.”
“So you can work with stores also. We’ll buy lots of fabric, if you need it. And a new machine.”
“My Singer is excellent; we don’t need a new one.” Batya tapped her wooden spoon on the side of the pot, letting the thick droplets of soup fall back inside. Then she put the lid back on. “But to sew on an industrial scale, we would need a lot of capital. I mean, how much material can we afford to buy?”
He was quiet for a minute, before saying heavily, “We can take, for now…maybe as a loan, a little bit of Ernie’s money. Even if we take only a quarter of what he sent…”
She gaped at him. Not because he’d mentioned Ernie; the name came up a lot at home. But because of the very idea.
“Your brother’s money?” she repeated, grasping Elisha’s hand as he climbed onto the table, threatening to tip the whole primus with the soup pot onto himself.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Gershon said hoarsely. “Four years have passed since the war is over. Ernie doesn’t appear on a single list. Neither does his wife or his daughter.”
“Is there someone from his wife’s family?”
“I don’t know them. He got married long after I left home. I know his wife’s family’s name from Bratislava, but I didn’t know any of them personally, and I have no idea what happened to them or where they are today.”
“In any case, he sent the money to you, not to any other brother-in-law who may have survived.”
“I’ve recently begun to think,” he said, ignoring her final statement, “that maybe I can use a little of it. As a loan.” Then he hurriedly added, “But Shlomo will be furious if he hears that I took it for myself. He’s the oldest. And if we start here with inheritances…”
“Shlomo lives in Haifa; you haven’t spoken, written, or met with him in the last two years.”
“But you can be sure that if I use the money, we’ll meet alright,” Gershon said bitterly. “In any case, the money really isn’t mine. I’m thinking of it purely in terms of a loan.”
“When did you last check the lists of the relatives?”
“In the last year, I’ve checked six times.” Gershon stood up to take a siddur so he could bentch. “The lists are not growing at the same pace that they did those first years. Apparently…” He closed his eyes for a moment. “I guess I’ve just lost hope.”
Batya nodded. She remembered those days when Gershon worked constantly to get any piece of information about the survivors from Europe.
“I’ll check again, today or tomorrow,” he said, after he finished bentching. “Elisha, do you want me to take you to nursery? I’m late anyway,” he noted to his wife.
The boy jumped excitedly into his father’s arms.
“He’s going to cry,” Batya warned.
“Let the teacher figure it out.” Gershon folded his sleeves and picked his son up with one hand. “Why are we sending such a little boy to school instead of leaving him home with you? So you can go to work. The teacher knows that.”
“Right. Let me just turn off the fire, and I’ll leave with you.”
Gershon walked along the dirt paths toward the nursery school. He didn’t want to get swept back to those painful years right after the war, to the fog of the war itself, and certainly not to the years before that, to that day when he stood in the doorway of his childhood home, and his father, despite not being a kohen, blessed him with the words of Birchas Kohanim.
His mother had cried, and Ernie, or Aharon, as was his Hebrew name, who was then eleven or twelve, or maybe a bit older, had looked at him with admiration and asked when he would also be able to travel to Palestine.
Then he had left, and his parents’ and little brother’s images remained frozen in his memory as they were on that day. They had tried to write regularly, and Ernie would always add a message to each letter of his parents’. Gershon had answered him warmly. He’d always gotten along with Ernie, not like with Shlomo.
Five years later, he’d sent his parents his wedding invitation, and received a warm letter with brachos and good wishes in response. Then he’d sent them a detailed letter and one wedding picture, and he’d received even more warm wishes for him and his new wife. A year later, he’d sent a telegram about the birth of Gavriel, and four years later, about Miriam. Then their responses had begun to take longer. One of the last normal letters he had received had been the one in which Ernie, then almost twenty-one years old, had written about his engagement and marriage, and another letter in which his parents wrote that Shlomo had also traveled to Palestine. Ernie was working at Fraser, the famous watch factory in Bratislava, and was being quite successful. But Shlomo struggled to find his place, and after a month of living in his brother’s home in Magdiel, he’d moved to Haifa. They’d hardly been in touch since.
And then ties with Europe had been totally cut off. Only a short time after the Germans had captured the Sudetenland, and Bratislava fell into their hands, Gershon had received a package with a wad of American dollars. A note was affixed to it with Ernie’s name. Two months later, a letter arrived; Gershon wasn’t sure to this day how exactly it had made it through. Ernie had briefly written some news about his family: he was living on the same street as their parents, he had a baby named for their grandmother, and because the future was very unclear, he had decided to send a sizable amount of his money to safer shores.
That was the last letter.
It wasn’t dated, and there was no way to know when it had been written. What had happened to Ernie since? His wife? Their daughter? Perhaps they’d had another baby?
There were people who were able to relate what had happened to Gershon’s parents. They’d been taken in a big deportation on Erev Sukkos. But no one could tell him what had happened to Ernie and his young family.
The wooden gate of the nursery school, painted in blue, waited with open arms for Elisha. The boy slipped out of his father’s arms silently and ran inside.
The council office in Magdiel was almost empty when Gershon walked in. Only Baruch, the longtime secretary, was sitting there.
“Oh, are you looking for your letter from the Bureau of Missing Relatives?”
“Yes,” Gershon replied. A few months earlier, Baruch had told him that his hopes and dreams were a waste of time; inevitably, they would all come crashing down. “I also searched,” he had said. “But I was there, unlike you. And I know what went on there. Maybe that’s why I’m much less optimistic than you.”
Now Baruch gave him a smile. “It arrived this morning,” he said.
“How did it get here so fast? I asked you to send the question just a week ago.”
“That’s what the telephone is for, my friend!” Baruch chuckled and patted the gray device. “I spoke to Menachem Rosko on the phone and asked him to send me information about all the Ludmirs currently on their list.”
“And the fact that you didn’t let me know right away what he answered, means that not a single new Ludmir turned up?” Right after the war, three survivors named Ludmir had appeared on the lists. But aside for a single third cousin, who was from Poland, there were no familial ties.
“No, it means that I asked him to send it to me in writing.” Baruch slid his chair back and looked in the metal box next to his desk. “You know I prefer not to be involved in these things.” He pulled out a brown envelope. “Here, take a look yourself.”
Gershon reached for the envelope.
“Sit here, in my chair.” Baruch rose. “I’m going out for a smoking break. If someone looks for me, tell them I’ll be back in twenty minutes.”
Gershon sat down, gently moving aside the objects on the desk. He opened the envelope.
Outside, Baruch walked up and down in front of the little structure, his cigarette clamped firmly between his lips. There weren’t lots of people in Magdiel like Gershon, who still hoped. Because how many new survivors suddenly cropped up? There were some, sure. Children who were discovered. People who, for some reason, did not give in their names initially, or others who just got to Israel now. Names somehow came through from the Soviet Union… But they were so few, and it was so hopeless…
Someone was gasping behind him.
He turned around.
The paper was trembling in Gershon’s hand. “It says it here! It says it!” he said, in a somewhat distorted voice, as though something was stuck in his throat. “There’s a new Ludmir here!”
“He’s probably a relative of all the other Ludmirs who were on the list at first; why do you think it’s one of your relatives?” Baruch had taught himself to be steeled for disappointment; that made the real letdown that followed much easier to bear.
“No…” Gershon didn’t look at him. “There’s an address. He’s from Bratislava, and it’s our street. Ours!”
“And is the first name familiar?”
“No, we didn’t have a Yosef in the family.”
“But it’s the same street!”
“Check, check,” Baruch said, as he looked at the pages. “Maybe there’s a mistake in the name. Things like that have happened.”
“A mistake in ‘Ludmir’?” Gershon did not know how much he had paled.
“No, a mistake in the ‘Yosef.’” Baruch patted him on the shoulder. “You see how awful it is to keep your hopes too high!”
“It’s not too much to hope to find one person out of my whole family…” Gershon murmured. “But I’ll check. Which Yosef could it be?”
“A little brother born after you left to Israel and didn’t know about?”
“On the Ludmir side there were mostly girls. And none of my few boy cousins was named Yosef.”
Gershon gazed at the darkening sky. “I had only one married brother there; he lived on that street, and he had one daughter. Maybe it’s her? Maybe it’s a mistake, and it’s really a girl?”
“Yes, it could be,” Baruch agreed. He still did not take his hand off of Gershon’s shoulder. “What are you going to do with this information now?”
“I’m going to Jerusalem tomorrow morning.”
“You’ve got quite a journey. Where in Jerusalem?”
“The Diskin Orphanage.”
“So it’s a boy? And that’s where he is? Or she is?”
Gershon shook his head; it was not clear if it was a nod or a shake in the negative. “It says I can get details there.”
“What can I tell you?” Baruch looked into his eyes. “Good luck. I hope you hear good news. But don’t hope too much. It’s not good for your heart, your stomach, your gallbladder, and a few other things.”